Listening to The Dead Kennedys makes me want to break shit that isn’t mine. They’ve been making people feel this way since their formation in 1978 and their rise to fame in the early ’80s. They’re one of the most popular and most influential punk bands in the history of the genre as it stands today, and as it stood back when they had to play under pseudonyms in order to book shows.
They sang about the corruption they saw everywhere and got people to get pissed and stand up for something. For some, The Dead Kennedys are a fucking institution. They procured for themselves a huge following, and everyone takes away something different. But what does it all mean to guitarist East Bay Ray, personally?
“Several things, really,” he tells The Aquarian. “I get to play good music with good musicians, I get to play guitar. We have an audience that has lasted, and is still growing. It was all ages back in the day, and now at shows I’m still seeing the older fans and the younger ones whereas The Moody Blues can play Vegas, and their whole audience is the same age as them. It’s like 70 percent of our audience is a different generation and I feel that it’s really significant, how our music affects lives. My parents were a part of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, so I was born with that education gene, always thinking about how to make things better. I feel it’s important to inspire discussion and change, to move people to think for themselves and not take what they’re fed.”
And The Dead Kennedys certainly do. In 1980 they were asked to perform their then-underground hit “California Uber Alles” at the Bay Area Music Awards in San Francisco to lend “new wave credibility” to the event. Emerging with big S’s painted on their shirts, they began to play, but a few seconds into it stopped—Jello Biafra infamously saying, “Hold it! We’ve gotta prove that we’re adults now. We’re not a punk rock band, we’re a new wave band.” They flipped their ties over from behind their backs forming dollar signs, and dove into a song called “Pull My Strings.” It was never recorded for a studio release, but was put on their compilation album Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death. It was only ever performed that one time, but I’d assume lyrics like, “Is my cock big enough/Is my brain small enough/For you to make me a star?” were not easily forgotten by those in attendance that night. But are the reasons, ideals, and values the band started with still relevant to them today?
“I think the ideals are still relevant, but I don’t know; I grew up in Berkeley,” he chuckles. “Political awareness was the thing there. But for college graduates now, it’s like they’re pulled between that, and careers.”
But as far as the evolution of the group goes, East Bay Ray says the band is definitely keeping up with the times. “Police Truck” is sure as hell still relevant, with the amount of police brutality finally coming to light these days. “Kill The Poor?” Now more than ever, it seems.
“The message is still relevant, but sometimes specific examples need to be changed. Like in a song about the war for oil, one of our lyrics was, ‘Cowboy Reagan comes to town.’ We changed it to George W. Bush when we played shows! It’s not just black and white.”
And fans are so glad it’s not. This year in April, The Dead Kennedys released a box set collection that features their original 7” vinyl singles released from 1979-1982. Let me just explain the importance of this to you: These singles have been out-of-print for decades, the songs have been remastered from the original tapes, and the set is beautiful. He was as excited to talk about it as I was to ask about it.
“I have one with me right now actually!” he says, to which I accidentally blurt out my jealousy and awe. He laughs and tells me more. “It’s great. We started discussing it about a year ago; I had all the original singles. All of the artwork was scanned, even the international covers, the wacky and different ones. We picked what we thought fit best!”
Despite being a huge part of the exploding punk scene, The Dead Kennedys were definitely a different breed. I’d imagine that a lot of their fans aren’t sure why they’re so unique, they just know that they are. But the more musically-broad and sound-submerged fans can recognize the various influences in their music, things that most wouldn’t put together but, here, somehow, they work really, really fucking well. For instance, if you listen closely and with an open mind, you’ll hear nods to garage rock, surf music, and even spaghetti western. No, really.
And much of this unique sound is credited to East Bay Ray and his guitar; his playing is identifiable and precise. Everything is; when the messy punk music of The Dead Kennedys is dissected…every component is very calculated and very smart.
“Everyone’s always surprised by my influences,” he laughs. “I really was into The Buzzcocks and The Ramones and The Undertones. But also the Ohio Players—I saw them two times! And I’d drive to practices listening to Merle Haggard. Everyone listened to different stuff. Jello was big on garage rock, Klaus [Flouride, bassist] had lots of ’30s jazz recordings. I think that’s really what made us different. We all had different influences and we all brought something different to it.”
Aside from The Dead Kennedys, East Bay Ray’s most recent musical project The Killer Smiles had featured his cutting guitar skills as well. “I play the way I play, but it was different from [The Dead Kennedys] in the sense that I was collaborating with writers,” he told me. In regards to what he’s working on now, it’s less in the way of new music and more to the tune of being an artists’ advocate.
“I’m working on being an artists’ advocate; I’ve spoken on panels at law schools, at SXSW, and on NPR. I actually lost money, with The Killer Smiles. YouTube makes so much money off of independent music—it’s literally cut the ability for a musician to survive in half. Over the last 10 years, the number of independent musicians has decreased by 47 percent. All the rich corporations are profiting. It’s been going on for years and years, and it’s been difficult to get the word out. But more artists are speaking out about it now.”
If you’re wondering why this is something you need to know, or get pissed about, or get involved in, it is; because corporate greed is literally the reason why there has not been a brand new Dead Kennedys release since 1986. If you don’t think that’s some of the most depressing shit ever then you’re not paying attention.
“We did have plans. But the industry’s been looted, we can’t afford it. It’s brutal. Back in the day, one out of a thousand acts would hit it big with a record, and money that came in from that one would finance the next one, and so on. That’s not the case anymore. There’s a Russian website—I’m not going to name or draw attention to it—I’m almost positive it’s owned by the Russian mob. It’s got all DK songs on it, next to ads for Alaska Airlines and 1-800-FLOWERS. The ad networks make money off it, the mob makes money, we get nothing. And it’s somehow legal.”
So then what’s the point anymore? If things are so bleak, why bother? Because it’s important. Music and creative expression in any form is so fucking important—and it’s still possible, albeit difficult, to send a message that hasn’t already been said a hundred different ways before.
“It’s not just musicians that are affected by all this, it’s journalists and photographers and even filmmakers. More people are realizing we’re being conned; but it’s hard—they know something is wrong, but they’re not sure how to articulate it. I’m trying to do some writing and talk about these things publicly to teach people how to articulate it. Everything gets ripped off. Anything you share can be used to advertise anything—your pictures, your music, your art. Google is The Man, Google is the establishment. And all these other corporations. It’s like, ‘Here’s free email! Here’s free cat videos! Ever wonder why you’ll never be as stable as your parents? We have nothing to do with it!’ It’s exploitation. It’s a monopoly. And they’re sophisticated in being invisible.”
And he’s absolutely right. We can overlook this truth every day though, because hey, you’ve got a really nice phone. Or hey, you drive a hybrid. Or hey, your photograph wasn’t used without your knowledge or permission to advertise a weight loss supplement on the ads sidebar on Facebook today. But I mean, on to some happier things…
There’s still hope, and East Bay Ray’s advice for anyone trying to make a name for themselves anywhere in the world of music is simple: don’t try to make a name for yourself.
“Just do good work. Listen to other artists and genres—that’s what made The Dead Kennedys so successful. It takes listening, to be able to write a song that crosses from your genre into anything else. A good song can be done in so many different styles.”
Did you get that, music snobbie-snobbers? Remove head from ass, and take a listen.
The Dead Kennedys (in their current lineup) are touring this month, and they will be playing at Philadelphia’s Theatre Of Living Arts on June 18 and NYC’s Irving Plaza on June 19. They’re excited about it, but what can we expect?
“That we’ll make it through it!” he jokes. “Last year we had to cancel shows due to my carpal tunnel syndrome, and I had surgery. I was in a lot of pain. I feel better, but tour will tell. It’ll be good! I love Irving Plaza, it’s always awesome there. Always high energy.”
I wish East Bay Ray, as well as the rest of the band, the best of luck on this tour and hopefully a shit ton more in the future. You can find some of his talks about artist advocacy and other great pieces about corrupt corporations and independent music by browsing his public Facebook page, and while I’d hate to add to the advertisement cesspool…I’d really like to encourage you to check these things out and get involved. More here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/East-Bay-Ray/107246597160.
The Dead Kennedys will play at Philadelphia’s Theatre Of Living Arts on June 18 and NYC’s Irving Plaza on June 19. For more information, go to deadkennedys.com.